Dr Jen Couch’s research listens to the voices of refugee young people experiencing homelessness, revealing that the phenomenon of homelessness experienced by young people of refugee background is under-recognised, often hidden and does not match commonly held beliefs about homeless young people. This is an excerpt of her findings*
On any given night in Australia, an average of 105,000 Australians identify as being homeless and recent data indicates that young people under the age of 25 comprise the majority of this population.
There is limited research relating to homelessness experienced by refugee young people. The available literature recognises that the experiences of homeless refugee young people are similar to those of the broader population of homeless youth, but that refugee young people experience additional significant disadvantage. Their lives are further disrupted by issues relating to their refugee experience, resettlement and lack of education, as well as serious challenges to their adolescent development.
Additional disadvantages that exacerbate refugee young people’s vulnerability to homelessness include social isolation, economic hardship, racism and discrimination by real estate agents and employers, language barriers and cultural ignorance, family breakdown, and poor mental health due to traumatic refugee experiences.
Despite limited data and information, it has been estimated that between 500 and 800 refugee young people are homeless Australia wide, making the risk of homelessness for refugee young people six to 10 times higher than that of Australian youth in general.
At the heart of the story: Young refugees speak about homelessness
This research was motivated by a strong commitment to exploring as fully as possible the experiences of refugee young people who have experienced homelessness. The information presented was provided by five female and four male homeless refugee young people aged between 19 and 25 years. These young people were homeless for between a few months and two years.
At the time of interviews, some young people were couch surfing, two were in emergency accommodation and others were “sleeping rough”. I also interviewed four young people who had transitioned out of homelessness. The young people interviewed were refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, the Congo, Liberia, Burma and Afghanistan.
Factors leading to homelessness
A year after we got here my dad started going crazy. I didn’t know it at the time. Nobody really did. He would disappear for a few hours and that turned into a couple of days. And then he got fired from his job. I quit school. I got a job and started trying to take care of my brothers. And it didn’t work. Lost the house. Started moving. My parents developed problems. My mum was experiencing women’s freedom in Australia and my dad felt he was losing his family and it shook the whole family up.
The process of becoming homeless involved becoming increasingly alienated from the systems designed to support young people. Many struggled in school because of language difficulties, interrupted schooling and difficulties concentrating. Several identified as having learning difficulties, being alienated by peers and experiencing racism. They repeatedly described feelings of “being different”, of not belonging, of being outside and on the fringes. While they may not have had a clear picture of what they were excluded from, there was a strong perception that there was a larger community to which they didn’t belong:
The impact of mental and emotional health issues on the experience of home and homelessness for these refugee young people was staggering, complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, the interviews revealed how critical it is to acknowledge the devastating impact mental health problems have on young people resettling in Australia.
Three of the young men interviewed were “chronically homeless” and moving from place to place.
Another young man was beaten in the Sudan and suffered a head injury. He also moved from place to place. Poverty and mental illness contributed to his insecurity:
I live day to day. Some people have a plan. For me it is difficult because I do not know what will happen.
A Somali young man had lived in 12 places since his arrival in Australia five years earlier and, at the time of the interview, was living in a shelter in the city. He suffered from paranoia and during the interview illustrated his fear:
You look like an immigration officer. How many questions do you have left? Sometimes I can’t smile because I don’t feel well. I’m not going to change.
All the young people were in a perpetual state of moving. Some daily, others weekly or monthly, all said that the instability of their housing arrangements put them at risk. Most young people found shelter by couch surfing. It was common for all of the young people to have, at some stage, moved from one friend’s house to another. Some tried to access youth refuges, but said they did not feel comfortable. They thought of themselves as different from other homeless young people. Several had not thought of approaching a refuge because they were afraid:
I felt the most homeless in the refuge because I was with people who would use drugs and it felt dangerous.
Some young people said they preferred to avoid refuges because they were too rigidly regulated and intrusive:
Going to get help they force you to tell your story over and over again. It was horrible and does not make you feel welcome. I looked after my whole family before I came to Australia. You can’t take a kid like me and put him in a place where they are going to have rules galore because they are not going to stay. It needs to be a stable place. No-one’s going to mind having a place where they can come and eat and sleep and stuff like that but it can’t be a place where you can’t do anything.
Most of the participants did not want to live in accommodation where their daily activities were controlled. They wanted to live independently. One homeless young person told his story of trying to find somewhere to live:
It was a nightmare. When I ran out of money. I went through the phone book, looking for names that were familiar to my country … I rang the Salvation Army. They told me there was no room and to ring back in a week. But I had no money and no place to stay.
Another young person found an Ethiopian restaurant soon after arrival and went there. The people in the restaurant rang a social worker they knew, otherwise the young person would have had to sleep in the restaurant.
None of the young people interviewed were able to find and maintain stable employment while being homeless, and their lack of education was a major hurdle in finding a decent job:
Barriers to accessing housing
All participants said they wanted secure shelter. Many had attempted to obtain shelter but were pulled back into homelessness because they were unable to secure adequate or stable housing.
The process of securing shelter was complicated by the fact that many young people were unaware of support agencies or found them hard to access:
I spent two hours on the train just going up and down trying to find where the service was. It’s humiliating to feel you can’t do anything and not be able to communicate.
When young people did seek out services, they often encountered barriers to access.Young people expressed concerns in relation to accessing services suitable to their culture, needs and age. More preparation for ongoing life is needed.
Refugee young people felt that workers did not understand the lives of people like them or what they had been through. They wanted the agencies to learn about them – their backgrounds, culture, racism and the problems they experienced. However, it did not matter if workers did not always understand, it was more important that they were friendly and supportive.
When asked about barriers to accessing housing and feeling at home in Australia, all young people mentioned language. Without adequate English language and literacy it was hard for these young people to function in Australian society. A young man who lived in a rooming house said:
My English is a problem because I do not always understand the rules of renting a place and may get evicted because I do not understand the rules. Or sometimes notices are placed in the building for people to come together and I can’t be involved because I can’t read the sign.
Young people spoke of experiencing racism when trying to access private rental. Several felt they were turned away because they were black. One young woman recalled a youth worker ringing on her behalf to inspect a property but, when the young woman herself arrived, the landlord told her it was rented.
Turning around homelessness
Despite the many difficulties, some young people had progressed out of homelessness. All young people in this study who transitioned out of homelessness cited a trigger event that helped them decide it was time to seek assistance:
I had a baby and that saved me … I look back on him and say I am glad I got pregnant even though his dad and I broke up like a month after I got pregnant. And I look at him every day and know every day that’s why I went and got some help.
One young person had a specific time at which he/she planned to exit homelessness:
When I turn 18, I’m going to start settling down and getting my life back together. Until then, I am probably going to keep myself lost.
After making the decision, all young people who began transitioning did so with the assistance of another person who helped them find stable housing and financial assistance. This was not always a housing or youth worker. One young person was “adopted” by a friend’s mum who provided him with stable home, food and emotional support.
When faced with impending homelessness, a pregnant young woman spoke about going through the phone book looking for Sudanese names to call someone for financial help. Similarly another young woman who came unaccompanied to Australia spoke about other Liberians who helped her survive the first few months:
I met a Liberian on the train. She said, “Call me if you need anything”. The first thing I said was, “I don’t know you and I hope one day I can give you something back, but right now I need some money for food”. She came that day with three bags of food: milk, cheese, meat and cereal.
The findings of this project are consistent with the research in the literature. Homelessness is not a choice that these young people made freely or easily. Most young people perceived that they had no alternative but to leave home.
These results suggest that homelessness is an outcome of a process whereby young people increasingly become disconnected from the support systems around them, such as family, school and community. The literature emphasised family reconfiguration and overcrowding as two primary causes of refugee youth homelessness, which our findings support.
This study confirmed that refugee young people face numerous barriers in their attempts to leave homelessness, including lack of adequate income, education, job opportunities and language.
It is essential that these issues be addressed to ensure that equity can be established for refugee young people.
*This is an excerpt of My life just went zig zag: Refugee young people and homelessness, journal article first published in 2011 in Youth Studies Australia, volume 30, number 2.
Dr Jen Couch is a senior lecturer at ACU. Before starting at ACU, Dr Couch worked in the community sector in Australia and Asia. Her research areas include refugee young people, homelessness and marginalised communities.